Based on the novel of the same name by Philip Reeve, the first entry in a string of young-adult novels, 2018’s Mortal Engines seemed like a blockbuster destined for success and an ensuing franchise upon its initial release, but, evidently, that was not the case. Carrying over much of the same crew behind The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, Mortal Engines has no shortage of eye-catching visuals and large-scale action set pieces, but the film lacks the interesting characters and engrossing story required to fuel a post-apocalyptic blockbuster of epic proportions.
Plot Summary: Thousands of years after human civilisation was destroyed by a cataclysmic event, mankind has adapted, and a new way of life has evolved. Gigantic roaming cities now wander the Earth, ruthlessly preying upon smaller municipalities to feed their enormous engines. One of these cities; the great traction city of London, is home to Tom Natsworthy, an apprentice historian, who eventually finds himself stranded and fighting for survival in the barren Outlands after encountering the evasive fugitive, Hester Shaw…
Directed by Christian Rivers, a prior storyboard and visual effects artist for both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. Mortal Engines shares more than a few similarities with co-writer/producer Peter Jackson’s adaptations of J.R.R Tolkien’s high-fantasy novels. For instance, much like the trilogies set within Middle-Earth, Mortal Engines places a heavy focus on world-building, continuously introducing new characters, lore and pieces of futuristic technology to flesh out its post-apocalyptic world. However, the diverse mix of locations throughout the narrative is by far the most fascinating aspect of the fictional world. From the roaming city of the former British capital to Airhaven; a metropolis floating amongst the clouds, to the nefarious Rustwater Marshes; an expansive section of swampland where countless unethical exchanges take place. Every location presented during the runtime is far more memorable than any of the characters that traverse through them.
Speaking of the characters, whether they derive from one of the monumental roaming cities or the desolate Outlands, the characters of Mortal Engines are exceptionally bland. Harbouring generic traits and obligatory backstories, the characters merely exist to push the story forward. The main cast of Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Jihae Kim, Ronan Raftery, Leila George and Hugo Weaving, don’t elevate the screenplay either, as their exaggerated British accents and equally exaggerated deliveries of corny and exposition-heavy dialogue make it difficult to care for any of them. Furthermore, by the time the third act arrives, we’re told that Hester and Tom have developed feelings for each other, a plot point that seems extremely far-fetched considering that the pair share only a handful of conversations that aren’t directly related to the narrative.
Largely consisting of wide shots to establish the extensive amount of locations visited throughout the story, Simon Raby’s cinematography undoubtedly enriches the film by impressively capturing the scope of the world and the enormous cities that roam within it. Moreover, the steampunk aesthetic supplies a hefty dose of personality to the visuals, particularly whenever it comes to scenes set within the roaming city of London, as the rundown futuristic technology combined with British iconography, forms a striking visual meld. Contrarily, the post-apocalyptic landscape of the Outlands is devoid of life and colour, making the industrial levels of the motorised cities almost seem appealing in comparison.
The original score by Tom Holkenborg, a.k.a. Junkie XL, is, for the most part, action-dominated, with tracks like The Chase, First Strike and No Going Back, all bleeding into one another due to their similarities. And whilst the soundtrack never really drags, the score does become rather repetitive as Holkenborg struggles to innovate on the action-orientated tracks. Meaning that all of the action sequences essentially contain the same selection of interchangeable tracks, each blaring out pounding percussions and string ostinatos.
Although many of the action sequences are relatively uninspired, the visual effects throughout Mortal Engines cannot be faulted. The most blatant example of how remarkable the visual effects are can be seen with the CG character, Shrike, a cyborg assassin, portrayed by Stephen Lang. While the film’s visual effects company, Weta Digital, is well-known for developing exceptional motion-capture characters, such as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and Caesar in the most-recent Planet of the Apes trilogy. In Mortal Engines, Shrike was created using alternative techniques to Weta Digital’s usual approach, as visual effects artists disregarded modern motion-capture methods to instead employ traditional keyframe animation and accurately capture Lang’s subtle facial expressions. Nevertheless, much like many of the other characters within Mortal Engines, Shrike and his poignant relationship with protagonist, Hester Shaw, feels greatly under-realised, somewhat dampening the terrific CGI.
In summary, for a blockbuster that revolves around massive roaming cities, soaring airships and steampunk cyborgs, Mortal Engines is strangely forgettable. Whilst the film is visually creative, dynamic and propulsive, emotionally and thematically, it’s hollow and flat, barely giving a reseason for its audience to be engaged. And even though I understand that in the last few years, Peter Jackson seems to have turned his attention towards directing documentaries as opposed to blown-up blockbusters. I believe that Mortal Engines could’ve been improved should Jackson have helmed the project and given the screenplay a few more rewrites and lookovers, potentially capturing some of the magic that made his prior plunges into the mystical world of Middle-Earth so enthralling. Rating: high 4/10.